Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why trust the Bible?

There is a book by Amy Orr-Ewing with the above title, which I had on my wishlist for a while but have never got around to reading. This is not a review of that book. But it is a serious attempt to answer the same question.

Ms Orr-Ewing addresses some of the issues raised by bible skeptics and sets out to show that the bible has not been distorted through many generations of manuscripts, is historically reliable, is demonstrably more reliable than the holy books of other religions, and furthermore she defends the bible's stance on sex and gives context for the overt violence and explicit sexism in there.

I've read defences of all that before. I'm sure Ms Orr-Ewing does a good job of presenting the same old arguments in a modern and readable manner. But as I say, I haven't read the book...

So. Why trust the Bible?

I suppose we really need to unpack the "trust the bible" part of that before we can get to the "why".

Here is what Scripture Union says about the bible in its statement of faith:
"We believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are God-breathed, since their writers spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit; hence are fully trustworthy in all that they affirm; and are our highest authority for faith and life."
UCCF has a slightly different emphasis:
"The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour."
The church I currently attend has this:
"We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Holy Scripture so that the Bible is without error in the original manuscripts. We receive the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments as our final, absolute authority, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. "
These statements affirm that the content of the bible is what was imparted from God to men and is therefore trustworthy, without error, infallible and has supreme authority. These statements then all include some wooly wording which seems to be a 'get out of jail free' card - "as originally given" or "in the original manuscripts" - the only point to these clauses is to imply that the bible we now have might (just might) contain a little error or two. I happen to like the SU version that doesn't use that cop-out, but does restrict the remit of the bible to merely "all that they affirm" and limits the scope to only "faith and life", not science or history or anything like that.

This avoids the problems of the historical accuracy of the bible. Basically while much of it might be historically accurate, there are a few things we can point to in there that we know are historical errors. The classic example of this is when the census in Luke took place - was it when Quirinius was governor of Syria or was it during the reign of Augustus? It can't have been both as the two did not overlap.

That's not to say that the bible does not contain history, its just that some of the history it contains is wrong. So can you trust the bible for historical details? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The problem with this is, of course, that it is clear that if there was an impartation of the bible from God to man, then this was not an infallible process, and errors definitely have got in. The bible is not infallible, at least not in the details.

OK, so maybe the bible isn't infallible, but maybe it is trustworthy as it was written by trustworthy men and women (there is a case to be made that Hebrews might have been written by a woman, but I'm not going into that here)? So who were these people? Well, many of them are unnamed, so we don't really know how trustworthy (or otherwise) they were. But some are named. Peter, Paul, James and Jude are all self-identified in their epistles. Well, that could be the case in some instances, but Peter is interesting. Textual study of 1st and 2nd Peter has shown conclusively that these letters could not have been written by the same person. Maybe one of them was written by Peter, but the other certainly was not. Yet both claim to be by Peter. The only reasonable conclusion to make of this is that (at least) one of them is a fake. And thus, there are fake books in the bible, bearing false witness to who it was who wrote them. Textual study also suggests that the author of the 'pastoral' epistles was not the same guy as wrote the likes of Corinthians or Romans, so some of the letters attributed to Paul, and bearing his name are fakes.

So far, we have the bible containing demonstrable errors and demonstrable lies.

Why trust this book? It seems we can't trust the details or its claims about who wrote some bits of it.

But good advice and spiritual truth can be conveyed by anonymous authors, can't they? Can we trust what the bible says about God and how God wants us to live? Surely the 'red letters' (sayings directly claimed to be the words of Jesus or the words of God in the Old Testament) can be considered trustworthy?

Well, leaving aside the observation (that I made in a recent post) that Matthew and Luke, in copying Mark's gospel actually changed some of the words attributed to Jesus, and leaving aside the observation that the way Jesus speaks in the fourth gospel is completely unlike the way he speaks in the other three, we see that even the words directly attributed to God himself in the Old Testament are not trustworthy. Look at Ezekiel 26v7-14:
7 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will bring upon Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses, chariots, cavalry and a great army. 8 He will slay your daughters on the mainland with the sword; and he will make siege walls against you, cast up a ramp against you and raise up a large shield against you. 9 The blow of his battering rams he will direct against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 Because of the multitude of his horses, the dust raised by them will cover you; your walls will shake at the noise of cavalry and wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city that is breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will slay your people with the sword; and your strong pillars will come down to the ground. 12 Also they will make a spoil of your riches and a prey of your merchandise, break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses, and throw your stones and your timbers and your debris into the water. 13 So I will silence the sound of your songs, and the sound of your harps will be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock; you will be a place for the spreading of nets. You will be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken,” declares the Lord God. 
This is a very detailed and precise prediction of the destruction of Tyre. The thing is, it never happened. Yes, Neb and his army came from the North, yes, they besieged the city. No, they didn't breach the city, no, they didn't trample it, no, it was not destroyed. The prophesied event did not happen. Its not as if the prophecy wasn't right in the details, it wasn't right at all. It was wrong. It says "I the Lord have spoken..." yet clearly either he hadn't spoken, or the prophet completely misunderstood what God had said. Either way, the bible contains failed prophecy and misrepresents the very words of God.

So, is the bible trustworthy?

Doesn't really look like it does it?

Yet millions of people read it on a regular basis and take guidance from it. They claim God speaks to them through it. They believe it to be trustworthy and many will say that their experience shows it to be trustworthy. Bestselling books call these people 'deluded'. Are they?

If there really is a God, would he speak through a book that contains lies, misinformation and false claims about the things he allegedly said? Well, he might. But he could just as easily speak through other flawed and misleading writings, like the holy books of other religions or even the horoscopes in the morning papers.

None of what I say above leads us to the conclusion that God, assuming there is a God, can't speak to us, assuming he wants to speak to us, through the bible. Its just that the bible, on the basis of the above, doesn't seem to be a special way to find his words. It is not special revelation. If God wants to speak to you, rest assured he will, irrespective of what you read. But I don't think I can trust the bible as the exclusive way to hear from God anymore.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Conversion, deconversion and the will to believe

I just listened to a show on Unbelievable with a discussion between Leah Libresco, a former outspoken atheist who recently converted to Catholicism (you can read about that on her blog), and Hemant Mehta, the 'friendly atheist' who once 'sold his soul on eBay' (you can read about that on his blog and book). The conversation was mostly about Leah's conversion and the reasons for it. She was quite unable to give a compelling case to him about why she converted.

Listening to the conversation reminded me of a few thoughts I'd been meaning to work up into a blog post for some time, so here goes.

The main thing that struck me during the show was how the 'friendly atheist' simply could not understand how an intelligent atheist could change her worldview and become a believer in a specific religion. He basically said he could understand it if she had become a deist, but couldn't understand how she could possibly have decided that Catholicism was the way to go.

But why is this surprising? People change their worldviews all the time (that is, I mean, all the time there will be someone changing their world view, not that any individual is constantly changing their views). Christians become atheists, muslims become Christians, hindus become muslims, atheists become Christians, secularists become muslims, agnostics become believers, believers become agnostics, and so on, and so on. Worldview conversions happen all the time and, as far as I can tell, the people involved go from being a real believer in worldview A, to a real believer in worldview B, its not as if they were pretending in the first instance. People who genuinely believe that there is no God can and do come to believe that there is a God. People who genuinely believe that there is a God and they are in a 'personal relationship' with him can and do lose that faith and come to believe that there is no God. It happens. Whatever our worldview, we should not be surprised to find that people who once agreed with us can change their minds and end up disagreeing with us, or vice versa.

Whatever your worldview, be it Christian, atheist, or whatever, the evidence is that some people who share your views will end up rejecting them. It happens. And it doesn't matter which worldview someone starts out from, some people will always reject their former worldview in favour of a different one.

What I take away from this is the conclusion that no worldview is 100% compelling. There are good arguments in favour of most worldviews, there are good arguments against most worldviews. There is no set of evidence for any worldview which is guaranteed to convince any believer in a different worldview to change tracks. None. 

A Christian cannot convince an atheist to convert purely on the basis of evidence or reason. 

An atheist cannot convince a Christian to deconvert purely on the basis of evidence or reason.

One thing is missing. The will to believe.

If you have the will to believe in a certain worldview, you will find the evidence in favour of it more compelling than the evidence against it. But you can't be reasoned into a change in the will to believe. The will to believe, I think, has to come from within and is probably much more to do with relationships and emotions than it ever has to do with reasoning, evidence or reality.

Chances are, if you mix with a group of people with a different worldview from your own, and you find out that they are nice, intelligent and decent people, you will be far more likely to develop the will to believe in their worldview. Relationship and emotion will slowly shift the balance of will, and you might end up agreeing with things that you once found disagreeable or find some arguments compelling which you once found unbelievable.

I know this has happened in my life. Reading between the lines in what Leah Libresco said in the radio show I can see it in her life too. She mixed with catholics, had a catholic boyfriend, found them to be nice and intelligent people, and slowly came around to their way of thinking.

There are some statistics I heard once [citation needed] which show that most people who change worldview beliefs change them at times of stress or change of circumstances in their lives. Death of a family member, birth of a child, relocation to a new town or country, leaving home for the first time, etc. These are the times when people change worldviews. This is why missional organisations tend to target students - generally away from home, in a new place, under stressful circumstances. Students are far more likely to change their beliefs than people who have been in the same location and job for many years. Looking back over my life I can see this in action - I became a Christian in my first term at university, my first time living away from home. And I began to question the assumptions of my Christian faith following the death of my father. So my experience mirrors these statistics. In other words, emotional change led me to change the emphasis in my will to believe.

What about the 'conversion experience'? I had one of these back in 1988 when I became a Christian. Was that real? If I'm considering letting go of Christianity, how can I deny the reality of the experience?

I can't. It was a real experience. But maybe my interpretation of that experience was all wrong. For several years (yes, years) before I became a Christian there had been tension in my will to believe. Or rather, there were two competing wills to believe in my life, basically one pulling me in a Christian direction, and one pulling me in the other (OK, I don't believe there are only two ways to live, but it seemed like it at the time). When I (finally) decided to become a Christian, the tension was resolved and there was release.

Ask a blues musician about tension and release. The release only works if it follows the tension. The emotional release in conversion only manifests because it follows an emotional tension. The experience is real, but it stems from emotional release, not necessarily the presence of God.

I'm aware that in my life at the moment I have tension in my will to believe once more. I genuinely do want there to be a God and for the major claims of Christianity to be true - I have the will to believe in that. But I also have a strong will to believe the truth and am finding out that Christianity looks less and less true the harder you scrutinise it. Once again, I have two competing wills to believe, and I am sure that whenever I abandon one and wholeheartedly embrace the other, there will be release. It wouldn't surprise me if I have a reconversion experience or a deconversion experience, depending on which way I go.

In closing it looks to me that, most of the time, those of us who change our worldviews do so for emotional changes in our wills to believe. Despite what we think, we don't do it out of rational choice. I once could see really compelling reasons to be a Christian, I now see really compelling reasons not to be one. The evidence hasn't changed, but my will to believe has shifted. The thing is, if it really does boil down to this, then actually that seems pretty good evidence that there is no God behind belief. If the worldview we pick is dependent on our circumstances and external influences, and changes in those can result in changes in our core beliefs, even though the evidence doesn't change, then this suggests to me that the evidence for any particular God is simply not compelling, and there is no good reason to believe any of them, except for the emotional need to connect to like-minded people.

So be careful who you mix with, you will quite probably end up believing the same as them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

"God is good!"

I heard two stories recounted across the weekend which ended with the concluding comment "God is good!", both stories involved something going bad before the people involved got out of the situation and found themselves back in a good situation, or at least one which was better than the bad one.

In both cases, I couldn't work out if the statement was the conclusion to the story (i.e. 'these bad things happened, but God overcame the circumstances, therefore God is good') or if it was a statement of faith (i.e. 'despite these bad things happening, I will continue to believe that God is good').

In both cases, the statement was made in a way which sounded like a conclusion, but I've heard much worse stories before coming to the same 'conclusion' when it really must have been a statement of faith, as the details of the story, if considered objectively, simply couldn't lead to the conclusion that God was acting in a good way in the unfolding events.

Therein lies the problem for me at the moment. The bible says "God is good" (I don't think it adds the 'all the time' that seems to feature on so many bumper stickers or t-shirts - do a Google image search and you'll see what I mean) and I think most Christians believe it, whether or not their experience actually supports the statement. What sequence of events would lead the believer to come to the opposite conclusion? None. A family dies in a car crash, one of them survives - God is good. A mud slide wipes out a village but the school is saved - God is good. What has to happen before someone concludes that maybe God isn't good? Or maybe is simply not acting there at all?

I was thinking of discussing some aspects of the book of Job here, but on thinking about it I realised that 'God is good' is not actually one of the points made in Job. The main point of Job is: God can do whatever he wants to do, who are you to question it...? But it doesn't demonstrate the goodness of God.

I have no doubt that for some people, their experience of life suggests to them that there is a benevolent deity working things out for good for them. However, I also look at the world and see many lives that look as if the opposite is true. In the middle are those for whom things work out some of the time, and not at other times. Indeed, if you look at the big picture it is hard to see a good god at work. Its easy for relatively comfortable and well off people in the West to say 'God is good', but I have to say I'm seriously beginning to doubt it. Not to doubt the goodness of God, but rather to doubt the Godness of good.